Grand Seiko Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 Watch Review
Thursday - 19 May 2016
by Angus Davies, www.escapementmagazine.com
For the last few years I have made the annual horological pilgrimage to Baselworld, the world's largest watch and jewellery fair. Prior to leaving my native Lancashire, I form a list of those watch companies I wish to visit and arrange appointments with many of the exhibiting brands. As a journalist I am always looking for newsworthy timepieces which elicit passion on my part, but with only a finite amount of time available, I have to allocate my limited meeting slots sparingly.
There are some exhibiting brands where it is virtually impossible to predict the new watches they will unveil, especially when they embrace incredibly bold design language. New products which employ cutting edge technology or avant-garde styling are innately more risky. Indeed, some disastrous products have been released in the past but, conversely, bravery has led to some spectacularly ingenious designs which have evoked much comment within the world's watch press.
Alternatively, some watch manufacturers release new watches, termed 'novelties', that prove to be more predictable. Some novelties are a 'line extension' of an already successful model, perhaps with a new dial colour or larger case size. While this is a much safer commercial strategy, I must be honest and say that this approach seldom causes my heart to miss a beat.
When looking at the aforementioned approaches to new product development, I would usually place Grand Seiko in the midground, avoiding the extremes of both philosophies. On one hand, Grand Seiko has demonstrated superb innovation with its Spring Drive movements, whilst on the other hand the styling of its dials could be viewed as slightly conservative. However, it could be argued that the Japanese watch company is justified in taking this approach to dial design, as it has become renowned for peerless readability few other brands can usurp.
Seeking a 'good story' means that I tend to focus on those watch companies which have historically produced bold, ingenious and thought-provoking novelties. While Grand Seiko is typically not the most radical watch company, I confess to being a die-hard fan of its timepieces and I always enjoy visiting the brand's stand in order to view its latest models. My attraction to Grand Seiko timepieces is based on the numerous attributes the brand's products always exhibit, including highly legible displays, supremely smooth cases, flawless movement finishing and impressive precision.
Usually the cases of Grand Seiko watches are formed of titanium, stainless steel or noble metals. The surfaces of the watch cases are subject to 'zaratsu' polishing which confers a glass-like smoothness, helping to deliver sublime levels of wearer comfort.
At Baselworld 2016, Grand Seiko released four new limited edition models in black ceramic and titanium, the first time this combination of case materials has been used by the company. The four watches look very different from any previous timepieces offered by Grand Seiko and when they were presented to me at Baselworld they immediately piqued my interest. I felt especially drawn to the Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 and, despite a jam-packed diary, overflowing with appointments, I felt compelled to spend precious time appraising the form of this mouthwatering timepiece.
The black dial canvas contrasts perfectly with the other display elements, augmenting legibility. Faceted Dauphine style hour and minute hands, featuring sharply defined gleaming edges, unite with neat, faceted hour markers.
Unusually, the chronograph registers are biased to the right hand side of the dial. A 30-minute chronograph register is positioned adjacent 2 o'clock with a 12-hour chronograph register located directly below.
At 7 o'clock, an arc-shaped power-reserve indicator features, showing the energy available within the spring barrel. The Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 has an impressive power reserve of 72 hours.
A small running seconds display resides at 9 o'clock. The design of this display is slightly idiosyncratic, employing a twin-tipped hand and featuring a semi-circular scale.
A date display is located at 3 o'clock. White numerals are displayed on a black date disc, presented via a framed aperture. Each value gracing the disc has been designed to optimise ease of read off, one of the many examples of the thorough design approach practised by Grand Seiko.
Frequent business travellers will appreciate the convenience of the GMT function. A stealthy black hand, sporting a prominent red tip, unites with the 24-hour scale on the bezel to indicate the 'home time'. The markings on the bezel prove very useful as they reveal whether it is 'day' or 'night'.
Grand Seiko has repeatedly shown a high degree of boldness and creativity with the design of this watch. The central chronograph seconds hand includes a lovely diamond-shaped counterweight, while a series of short rectangular strokes encircle the periphery of the dial, aiding split second measurement of elapsed time.
There are a myriad of indications on the dial of this watch and several unusual, almost playful, design elements, however, Grand Seiko's reputation for peerless legibility remains intact.
The dimensions of the Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 are unusually large, particularly when contrasted with other Grand Seiko models. The diameter is 46.4mm and the case thickness is 16.1mm. Personally, I did not find the scale of this watch too large and, typical of other Grand Seiko timepieces, the watch accorded a pampering union with my wrist.
The case is highly unusual, consisting of a five piece construction method. The inner case and the screw-down exhibition caseback are formed of 'high-intensity titanium' which is both light and hypoallergenic, proving very comfortable when in contact with the skin.
Two 'Zirconia ceramic' sections, positioned on either side of the watch case, comprise of an upper lug, caseband and lower lug in one piece. These two sections are affixed to the inner case with screws, visible from the sides of the watch. In addition, 'Zirconia ceramic' is also used for the bezel. The rationale for selecting this material is its incredible strength and resistance to scratching.
The case of the watch is hand polished, evincing sumptuously shining surfaces with precisely delineated edges.
A crocodile leather strap, paired with a three-fold clasp with push button release, reinforces the perception of luxury.
The watch is equipped with a Caliber 9R96 Spring Drive Chronograph GMT movement. This Caliber, in common with a conventional automatic mechanical movement, features an oscillating mass which gathers energy from the motion of the wearer's wrist and stores this within a mainspring.
When tensioned, the mainspring unwinds in order to assume a relaxed state, however, the release of the energy, via a series of gears has to be consistent in order that the hands move at a uniform rate. A conventional mechanical watch uses a device called an 'escapement' to proportion the energy. In the Spring Drive movement, energy is regulated using a speed control system, termed a 'Tri-synchro regulator'. This device manages mechanical power (mainspring), electric power (an integrated circuit and quartz oscillator) and electromagnetic power (braking the oscillator).
The ingenious Spring Drive movement requires no battery, drawing all its power requirements from the motion of the wearer's wrist and delivers an incredibly high degree of precision not found with mechanical watches. Formerly, the Grand Seiko Chronograph GMT timepiece incorporated the highly impressive Caliber 9R86 movement which had an incredible daily variation of ± 1 second per day. However, typical of the progressive Japanese company where 'kaizen', continuous improvement, suffuses its culture, this model features the new Caliber 9R96 movement, proffering an amazing daily ± 0.5 seconds per day.
In addition to the impressive accuracy of the movement is the sublime operation of the chronograph. The Caliber 9R96 is a fully integrated chronograph movement, featuring a column wheel and vertical clutch. The benefits of this type of chronograph when compared with modular chronographs include silky smooth operation of the pushpieces and more accurate time measurement.
A personal horological obsession of mine is movement finishing and in this regard, once again, the Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 sates my desires. The bridges are adorned with a striped motif, similar in concept to Côtes de Genève motif or Glashütte ribbing. Each stripe is beautifully defined and the jewel sinks are highly polished. The oscillating mass again features a striped motif, is partially open-worked and sports an 18-carat gold Grand Seiko lion medal.
This year at Baselworld, Grand Seiko surprised me with the unexpected release of the Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015.
The styling and, in particular, the unusual five part case formed of 'Zirconia ceramic' and 'high-intensity titanium' represents a bold, avant-garde alternative to some of the company's more
classical designs. However, Grand Seiko has not abandoned the very qualities which have led to its strong following among discerning watch collectors.
The Black Ceramic Limited Edition 9R96 Spring Drive Sports Chronograph GMT SBGC015 may look radically different from other Grand Seiko models but it shares the same matchless legibility, excellent wearer comfort and superb precision as other timepieces offered by this Japanese watch company.
I remain a huge fan of Grand Seiko but now ponder what novelties will await me at Baselworld 2017. Rest assured, I will be making my appointment as soon possible, hoping to view more fabulous Japanese horology.
Case: 'Zirconia ceramic' and 'high-intensity titanium'; diameter 46.40 mm; thickness 16.1 mm; water resistant to 10 bar (100 metres); sapphire crystal to front and caseback.
Functions: Hours; minutes; small seconds; date; GMT; chronograph.
Movement: Caliber 9R96 Spring Drive Chronograph GMT, self-winding movement; Spring Drive; 50 jewels; power reserve 72 hours.
Strap: Crocodile leather strap with three-fold clasp with push button release